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It was business as usual tonight at Bali Hai Casino on the Vegas Strip, which meant that every nut job and wacko who could arrange bail was on the prowl. Crystal Debrowski figured that in her seven years working casino security she'd pretty much heard every come-on line written in the casino crawlers and lounge lizards' handbook. That was because Crystal was what her friend Abbie Hughes Lang referred to as a man magnet and yeah, Crystal knew what men saw when they looked at her: sex on a stick. Pixie features, spiky red hair, and fairy-green eyes. Showgirl breasts and round hips that swayed to a sultry beat when she walked and drew heartbreakers and bizarros from the four corners of the earth.
In her twenty-seven years, she'd been lied to, cheated on, hit on, and proposed to. Just when she'd thought she'd heard it all, this guy sweetened the pot. Her latest admirer a Mr. Yao Long, according to the business card sporting an embossed Komodo dragon emblem had come a long way for a letdown.
Wait until she told Abbie about this joker.
She glanced from Mr. Yao to the man who appeared to be his assistant. "I don't believe I caught your name."
Wong, a Jackie Chan look-alike, did most of his boss's talking for him. Talking that included propositioning Crystal at a one-hundred-dollar-minimum blackjack table where she was filling in for a dealer who'd gone on a quick break. Crystal was about ninety-nine percent certain that the gist of Yao's offer ran somewhere in the neighborhood of: Him, lord and master. Her, concubine and sex slave.
"Please tell Mr. Yao, thanks, but no thanks," she told Wong, who hovered at her amorous suitor's side like apet gnat.
Because she perpetuated the sex kitten image a girl had to have some fun, especially if that girl lived in a world where few people took a woman seriously who wore four-inch platforms that topped her out around five-four Crystal cut Yao a little slack.
That didn't mean she was going for his insulting proposition. And it didn't mean she liked it. She'd pretty much had it with the opposite sex. Recently promoted to Gaming Manager at Bali Hai, and with several heartbreaks under her belt, Crystal's newly adopted motto was: Men. Can't live with 'em. Can't tie 'em to a train track and wait for Amtrak to do the deed. Chalk her disenchantment up to a string of bad relationships with men who had basically "gotten into her" because she jiggled when she walked.
Johnny Duane Reed was a recent example. That cowboy had heartbreak written all over him and she'd be damned if she knew why every time he blew into town she ended up naked before he ended up gone. Reed always ended up gone.
The latest case in point, however, stood before her tonight. Mr. Yao Long did not look happy. But then, it was hard to tell for certain. His expression hadn't altered since he'd appeared thirty minutes ago with Wong.
"Did he understand that my answer is no?" Crystal's gaze darted from Wong to Yao as she turned the table back over to the dealer. "Because, I'm thinking that if he did, now would be a really good time for him to leave." To stress her meaning, she made walking motions with her fingers.
Mr. Yao, all five-foot-four inches of salt-and-pepper hair, Armani suit, and Gucci loafers, continued to stare at her through narrow eyes the color of onyx. His expression never wavered.
Was it anger? Disappointment? Gas? she wondered, as a frisson of unease tickled its way down her spine.
"Did you understand that my answer is no?" She averted her gaze from Mr. Personality to Wong, hoping to make it clear that it was time for the two of them to shuffle on back to Laos or Cambodia or Hong Kong wherever and out of her face so she could get back to business.
"Mr. Yao understands your response but respectfully rejects your answer."
She blinked. "He said that?" She hadn't heard a word.
"Mr. Yao is quite taken with you. He expresses regret that you are reluctant to allow him the opportunity to get to know you better but must insist on your cooperation."
"No, seriously. Is he like texting you or something because I never saw his lips move." This was so ludicrous it was almost funny. The next words out of Wong's mouth, however, sobered her like a judge in night court.
"Miss Debrowski, please understand it would not be wise "
"Wait." She cut off Wong with a hand in the air as unease shifted to alarm. She didn't wear a name tag and as Gaming Manager, practiced anonymity with the fervor of a religious zealot. Yet this man knew who she was. "How do you know my name?"
"Mr. Yao makes it a point to know everything. He is a very important and powerful man in our country."
"Yeah, well, this is my country," she informed Wong, searching the sea of gamblers and finally getting the attention of the security muscle on duty this shift. "And in my country it's neither polite nor acceptable for any man important or otherwise to impose his attention where it isn't wanted.
"Max," she said when the twenty-something bodybuilder walked to her side, pecs and biceps bulging beneath the navy T-shirt with a Bali Hai Security Force logo printed on the breast pocket. "Please escort these gentlemen out. Their business here is concluded."
It wasn't that she couldn't handle the situation her daddy had been one of Las Vegas Police Department's finest before he'd retired last year. He'd taught her to handle any situation but Max's sheer size was enough to prevent any potential ruckus. She just wanted them gone without incident. Harmless or not, ridiculous or not, the two of them spooked her and Crystal wasn't easily spooked.
"You will regret this," Wong said softly.
"Already do," she muttered under her breath, relieved when they bowed to Max's muscle and allowed him to walk them across the casino floor toward the exit without a protest.
"Tip, boss," Sharon Keiler announced, drawing Crystal's attention back to the table action.
She nodded permission for Sharon to pocket the five-dollar toke, then went on about her business of scanning the action on the casino floor.
Crystal had work to do. Promotion came with a price. Because she was who she was a very small woman in a man's world she'd had to work twice as long and twice as hard to earn her current position. She was two weeks into her Gaming Manager post and still learning the ropes. The last thing she could afford to have happen was to let these jokers distract her from doing her job.
Everyone wanted to score in Vegas. Everyone had an angle. For every hundred no-luck and good-time gamblers, there was at least one among them intent on upping the odds in their favor. It was her job to spot the cheaters card counters, past-posters, hand-muckers, palmers, and techno wizards whether they were on the payroll or on a weekend junket from Podunk, Missouri.
A war whoop sounded from a bank of Lucky Seven slots. Someone had hit it big. She ambled over that way, prepared to offer the casino's congratulations and assistance with the haul when that unsettling curl of awareness skittered down her spine again.
She stopped, spun around, and found herself staring straight into eyes as cold as chipped ice. The man was Asian, midforties, impeccably dressed in a black suit and blue silk tie almost indistinguishable from Wong Li's attire. He held her gaze for a long menacing moment, then turned and melted into the crowd.
"Spooky," she muttered, then resumed walking and ran headlong into a wall of muscle.
"Excuse me." She backed up and encountered yet another Asian man. Identical suit. Similar tie. Same hard, intense stare.
This man, too, impaled her with an ominous look before he turned and walked away.
Damn, if her knees weren't shaking when she forced herself toward the slot that was still dinging and whistling for the crowd that had gathered to see exactly how much money the lucky player had won.
And damn if she'd knuckle under to yet another urge to turn and see if someone else was watching her.
Screw them and the Komodo dragons they slithered in on. No way was she letting them see her sweat, because by this time tomorrow, Mr. Yao Long and his ninja squad and yeah, she figured those guys were with him would most likely be sailing on a fast boat to China and her life would be back to normal.
Normal. Right. What was she thinking? This was Las Vegas.
Three weeks later, Crystal knew she was in trouble. There was no question and no doubt that she was in deep, mucky doo-doo and she didn't have one single clue how it had come to this.
Ten days ago the counterfeit chips had shown up on the floor. Each casino had a unique set of chips, distinguishable from those used at other casinos and backed up with the appropriate amount of cash. The counterfeit chips that had made their way into the inventory had been identical to the Bali Hai chips so no one had spotted them until random UV testing had discovered the fakes, whose appearance had been traced to her section and her shift.
Initially, there was no reason to blame Crystal, but then things started to snowball. Her section came up short for the evening shift's take. Tens of thousands of dollars short. Then hackers breached computer security codes. Dozens of other little yet vital security glitches all on her watch had her pulling her hair out.
So yeah, she became a subject of intense scrutiny. And no, she had no explanation, just a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how this was happening on her watch.
She'd since triple-covered all of her security measures and prayed to the gods of roulette that she had a handle on things. That's when the unthinkable happened. Last night, twelve of the thirteen gaming tables under her direct supervision had been flooded with counterfeit twenty-dollar bills. Whoever distributed them had taken the casino for close to two hundred K.
Now here she was, standing in her boss's office listening to him tell her that someone had made an unauthorized entry into the vault using her access card.
For the first time since he'd called her in, Crystal breathed a sigh of relief. Cameras monitored the vault twenty-four/seven, three-sixty-five. If someone had used her card, it would be clear that it wasn't her. "Check the videos."
"We did." Mark Gilbert, the director of casino security, looked grim. He was fit, forty, and the model of corporate efficiency. "The digital video surveillance system developed a glitch during the time in question. Nothing was recorded. The computerized archiving just mysteriously came up empty. Convenient, wouldn't you say?"
Her heart dropped to her knees. There was no way a secure computer system like Bali Hai's could have been hacked into. Yet, it had happened. "You don't seriously believe I'm stealing from you?"
Gilbert sat behind his massive mahogany desk and stared past her rather than at her. "I don't want to, no. But given the circumstances, Miss Debrowski, we have no choice but to place you on leave without pay."
She swallowed back anger and frustration and tears. Gathered herself. "I understand." Actually, she didn't, but given the fact that the only case she had to plead was ignorance, what else could she say? As Gaming Manager, Crystal was the last line of resistance. The security breakdowns had occurred on her watch. That not only made her negligent, it made her suspect.
Gilbert pressed the intercom button on his phone. "Send them in."
The door opened. Crystal looked over her shoulder and saw two uniformed LVPD officers walking in.
The blood drained from her head, swamping her with dizziness. Oh God. She'd been waiting for the other shoe to fall. It hadn't just fallen, it had stomped, then ground into her with attitude.
She turned back to Gilbert, her heart pounding. "You're having me arrested?"
Her boss had the decency to look remorseful. "I'm sorry."
He was sorry and Crystal was scared to death as the officers Mirandized her and charged her with suspicion of grand larceny and embezzlement before they handcuffed her and led her out the door.
"And here I thought I was the only one who got to use handcuffs on you."
Crystal looked up from the corner of the white cement-block jail cell four hours later to see Johnny Duane Reed grinning at her from the other side of the bars.
Grinning and gorgeous, Reed was the last person she wanted to see specifically because until today he had been the only one who had ever gotten to use handcuffs on her.
A vivid memory of her naked and cuffed to her own bed while Reed had introduced her to a new way to enjoy Ben & Jerry's Jamaican Me Crazy Sorbet was not the diversion she needed at this point in time.
"Abbie called you," she concluded.
Abbie Hughes now Abbie Hughes Lang was Crystal's best friend. More than friend, actually. They were as close to family as it was possible to be without benefit of blood ties. Crystal and Abbie had been through it all together. All, possibly, except imprisonment.
"I was visiting the ranch," Reed said. "I was there when she got your call."
It figured that Reed would be back in Vegas and not bother to come and see her. Not that she wanted him to. Not that she cared.
"I need a lawyer, not a..." She paused, groping for the word that best described him.
"Lover?" he suggested with that cocky grin.
"Not the word I was searching for," she grumbled, but let it go at that because Reed would take further protests as encouragement.
"If you don't want him, sugar, I'll be happy as hell to take him."
Her cell mate, Jasmine, shot Reed her best come-hither hooker smile. Reed, of course, couldn't help himself. He winked at the ebony-skinned working girl, flirting outrageously.
Jesus, would you look at him. Hair too long and too blond. Eyes too sexy and too blue. Body too buff, ego in danger of liftoff. Standing there in his tight faded jeans, painted-on T-shirt, and snakeskin boots, he looked like God's guilty gift. Trouble was, he knew it.
So did Jasmine. So did Crystal. What she didn't know was why she was so glad to see a man who played at life, played at love, and played at caring about her. That was the sum total of Reed's commitment quotient. He played at everything.
"How you holdin' up, Tinkerbell?" he asked gently.
Oh God. He actually sounded like he cared.
"Careful, Reed. You might get me thinking you give a rip."
He had the gall to look wounded. "Now you've gone and hurt my feelings."
"Just get me out of here," she said, rising and meeting him at the heavy barred door.
"Working on it," he said. "Abbie and Sam are right behind me. They'll arrange bail as soon as they can."
"Bail's already made."
The jailer approached them with a set of keys and a sympathetic look. Crystal had gotten a lot of those looks during processing. It hadn't taken long for word to spread that she was Phil Debrowski's daughter. Thank God her mom and dad were on a three-week tour of Italy and weren't here to witness this.
Crystal backed away from the bars when the barrel-chested and balding deputy slipped the lock and slid open the door with a hollow, heavy clunk. "Hey Jake. Someone made my bail? Who?"
The deputy, who was clearly uncomfortable with the situation, shook his head. "You'll have to ask at processing, Crystal. They don't tell me that stuff down here."
"I've always had this prison chick fantasy," Reed said confidentially as Crystal slipped out of the cell. "You know sex starved, man hungry."
"Stow it." Crystal marched past him, ignoring his warped sense of humor. She was tired and terrified and doing her damnedest not to let either show.
"Hey, hey," he said gently and caught her by the arm. "Looks like someone could use a hug."
Yeah. She could use a hug. She could use a hundred hugs but now was not the time, this was not the place, and he was not the man she wanted to show the slightest bit of weakness to. "What I need is fresh air."
"Sure. But first, do a guy a favor." He leaned down close and whispered in her ear. "Make my fantasy complete. Tell me that you and the sister there had a hair-pulling, nail-scratching catfight and I'll die a happy man."
"Screw you, Reed."
He dropped a hand on her shoulder, squeezed, and poured on his Texas drawl. "Now you're talkin'."
Copyright © 2009 by Cindy Gerard